Jacob Arminius and the Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 5


By John A. Aloisi. Reproduced from DBSJ 21 (2016) with permission. This installment continues the study of Original Sin Itself, and follows a look at the defitions of Original Sin held by Augustine and Aquinus. Read the series.

The Relationship of Original Sin to “Actual Sin”

Arminius placed great emphasis on the “event” of sin. In his view, sin consists in action.82 It is an event much more than it is a state or condition. Arminius therefore drew a sharp distinction between original sin and “actual sins” which people commit at a specific point in time.83 Actual sin is “that sin which man commits, through the corruption of his nature, from the time when he knows how to use reason.”84 People are born with original sin, but they commit actual sins when they choose to transgress God’s law.

While original sin or the privation of original holiness is indirectly a cause of actual sins, actual sins lead to all the conflicts and calamities of this world. The commission of actual sins is the cause of physical death. Furthermore, actual sins also produce eternal death.85 According to Arminius, physical and eternal death are not the effects of original sin but rather of actual sins.86 Therefore, people die and face the eternal consequences of their sin due to the actual sins they commit, not the original sin which they inherit.

According to Arminius, Adam’s sin is not imputed to infants; people only become guilty when they commit sin themselves.87 Individuals are not so much born sinners as they become sinners by sinning. They are born with original sin, but God is not angry with them on account of it alone. God only hates sinners on account of their own sins.88

In light of the fact that Arminius taught that physical death is a result of actual sin, it would seem he would have a difficult time explaining why infants are liable to physical death before they are able to commit actual sins. This problem also plagued the theory of Pelagius.89 Unfortunately, Arminius does not appear to have ever dealt with this difficulty.

In Arminius’s opinion, original sin cannot make the commission of actual sin inevitable. If man must sin, then he cannot sin. He explained, “The necessity and inevitability of sinning excuses from sin, and frees from punishment, him who commits the act. I say act, and not sin, because an act, which one necessarily and inevitably commits, can not be called sin.”90 If a person is born with a truly depraved nature which will inevitably lead to sin, then he is unable to sin because actual sin can only be committed when one is completely free to choose whether to sin or not.

Arminius held that the efficient cause of actual sin is man exercising his own free will.91 Man has a free will, but it is an instrument whereby he is able to commit sin. What Arminius called the “inwardly working” cause of actual sin is “the original propensity of our nature towards that which is contrary to the divine law, which propensity we have contracted from our first parents, through carnal generation.”92 Every person is born with this propensity to transgress God’s commands. The “outwardly working” causes of sins are the objects and occasions that tempt people to sin.93

When Arminius spoke about the original propensity of man’s nature to desire what God’s law forbids, it may seem as if he was referring to original sin, but this is probably not the case. Instead, it seems that by “original propensity” he meant the same propensity that resulted in Adam’s first sin.94 If Adam, while in possession of original holiness could be moved to transgress God’s law, then those who lack original holiness are all the more prone to cooperate with the same propensity which led to the first transgression in Eden.

On the other hand, Arminius stated that “absence of original righteousness, only, is original sin itself…which alone is sufficient to commit and produce any actual sins whatsoever.”95 This appears to be a contradiction in his thought that he made no effort to harmonize.

Original Sin and the Justice of God

The idea that God must be fair to mankind is a central theme in Arminius’s theology. In Arminius’s mind, the justice of God places important limits on God’s freedom and his relationship to his creation. God’s justice only permits him to do certain things, and it requires him to do other things for the creatures he has made.

The Permission of Sin

Arminius was very quick to accuse Calvin and others of making God the author of sin. He believed that by admitting that the Fall occurred within the predetermined ordination of God, Calvin and Beza necessarily made God the author of sin.96

Arminius argued that sin, by definition, must be voluntary. It cannot be decreed by God in any way. In his Review of Perkin’s Pamphlet, Arminius wrote, “If a man is ordained to commit sin, then he cannot sin. For sin is a voluntary act, and the decree of God in reference to sin introduces the necessity of sinning.”97 He reasoned that if sin is part of the decree of God, it is no longer voluntary, and therefore it is no longer sin.98

In Arminius’s view, because God foreknows potential opportunities to sin, he can and does hinder its commission in this world. Arminius identified three main ways in which God can hinder the accomplishment of sin. First, God can place an impediment on the power of a rational creature. Through various means, God is able to remove the act of sin from the power of the one who desires to sin.99 Second, God can impede the capability of his creatures. He does this by depriving a creature of life, by weakening a person’s capabilities, by opposing an individual’s abilities with a greater force, or by removing the object of sin.100 Third, God is able to place an impediment on a creature’s will. He does this by presenting arguments to a person’s mind that may persuade the person not to sin.101

Although God often hinders sin, Arminius confessed that he also permits it. Arminius defined God’s permission of sin as

the suspension, not of one impediment or two, which may be presented to the capability or the will, but of all impediments at once, which, God knows, if they were all employed, would [reipsa] effectually hinder sin. Such [necesse est] necessarily would be the result, because sin might be hindered by a single impediment.102

Therefore, God effectively permits sin, by not placing in man’s way impediments to the commission of sin. In a certain sense, God wills sin by not preventing it, but in doing so God’s will is inactive.103

One might wonder, in Arminius’s view, why God does not impede sin more often. Concerning the reason for God’s permission of sin, Arminius explained,

The foundation of this permission is (1.) The liberty [arbitrii] of choosing, with which God formed his rational creature, and which his constancy does not suffer to be abolished, lest He should be accused of mutability. (2.) The infinite wisdom and power of God, by which He knows and is able out of darkness to bring light, and to produce good out of evil.104

According to Arminius, part of the reason why God permits sin is because he has no other choice in light of the fact that he created people with the liberty of choosing. God is able to prevent sin, but only in certain ways. God’s options are apparently limited by the freedom that he has given to his creatures. For instance Arminius asserted,

God is free to prevent sin, but in a way not at variance with the freedom of the will. Any other method of prevention would be absolutely contrary to the good of the universe, inasmuch as one good of the universe consists even in this, that there should be a creature endued with free will, and that the use of his own free will should be conceded to the creature without any divine interference.105

God’s ability to prevent sin is hindered by the free will that he has given to his creatures. This limitation raises questions about the genuineness of God’s providence.

(Next: Consideration of Original Sin and the Justice of God conitnues, with a look at the Providence of God.)


82 Ibid., 3:385.

83 Boer, God’s Twofold Love, 198.

84 Writings, 1:486. Arminius described actual sin as involving both commission and omission. He also divided actual sin into venial and mortal sins. All sin by its very nature is mortal, for it merits death, but not all sin is venial. Venial sins are such because they are capable of being forgiven. God is unwilling to impute sin to believers, and the sins that God determines to forgive are those that are venial (1:487–90).

85 Ibid., 1:492.

86 Ibid., 1:382.

87 Ibid., 1:319.

88 Ibid., 3:498.

89 John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1959), 10. As Russell explained, “Were suffering and death confined to adults, it might be supposed that they entirely proceeded from personal offences, and not from the sin of Adam. But how can the suffering and death of infants, be accounted for, seeing they have been guilty of no actual offence” (David Russell, An Essay on the Salvation of All Dying in Infancy Edinburgh: Waugh and Innes, 1823], 14).

90 Ibid., 3:380.

91 Writings, 1:492. Elsewhere, Arminius almost seems to deny that fallen man has a free will when he approvingly quotes Augustine’s statement that “free-will was lost” in the Fall (3:125; cf. City of God, 14.11).

92 Writings, 1:492.

93 Ibid.

94 Compare his statements about the “inwardly moving” causes of Adam’s sin (ibid., 1:481–82). Arminius seems to be saying that man was originally created with a propensity toward what God forbids.

95 Ibid., 2:79.

96 Ibid., 3:77.

97 Ibid., 3:378.

98 Arminius avoided the lapsarian controversy altogether by placing the Fall and all subsequent sin outside of the decree of God. He stated, “Adam did not fall through the decree of God, neither through being ordained to fall nor through desertion” (ibid., 2:491).

99 Ibid., 1:496.

100 Ibid., 1:496–97.

101 Ibid., 1:497.

102 Ibid., 1:498. Arminius elsewhere defined permission as “a cessation of the act of hindrance, but that cessation is to be so explained that it may not be reduced to an efficient cause of sin, either directly, or by way of the denial or removal of that, without which sin can not be avoided” (ibid., 3:301).

103 Ibid., 3:300–302.

104 Ibid., 1:499.

105 Ibid., 3:302.